Subject: Money in Europe

My friend Sarah is going to Germany/Austria next month. She asked for info on how to deal with the new Euro environment. This is what I sent her. Comment, anyone?

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The currency situation in Europe has evolved considerably since our [Rick Steves ETBD tour together] 2000 visit. No more fussing with individual currencies and exchange rates. Except for Switzerland, all you need are Euros.

When we go, we carry a few travelers checks and $US 100 in twenties just in case but have never had to use either.

ATMS are everywhere. We each carry ATM cards (not debit cards--too dangerous) on two different checking (not savings) accounts. That's in case the mag strip should become corrupted (happened once) or the ATM machine eats the card (happened to the guy ahead of us in Holland). We make our draws from bank ATMs while the bank is open, just in case. Must have a four-digit numeric PIN. Five digits won't work and we've never seen an ATM machine with letters on it.

Your ATM card will work in machines that are connected to either or both of the major exchange networks. Look on the back of your ATM card for the PLUS or Cirrus logo. PLUS is owned by VISA and Cirrus by MasterCard/Maestro. If the logo(s) on your card matches the one(s) on the ATM, it will work.

When you make a draw, the ATM network converts the Euros into $US at the most favorable wholesale rate and add a one- percent fee for making the translation. Our local bank charges us $US 1 per transaction for using a non-network ATM; others charge more or less. We've heard that some overseas ATMs also levy a usage charge but we've never run into one.

Never use a credit card to draw money from an ATM. The finance charges on cash advances start accruing immediately whether or not the monthly billing is paid in full. There's one exception to this. Often at a grocery store where we can pay by credit card, we ask for an extra 50 euro or so in cash. It gets added to the charge but does not count as a cash advance.

We wait until we reach our destination and buy our local currency from the ATM in the airport terminal. To get small change (remember that 20 P to take a P?), we buy the English-language Herald-Trib or USA Today and a phone card from the airport newsstand. You can find out where ATMs are located by going to PLUS's web site, or Cirrus's,

Last year, our Montalcino apartment rent was paid in advance with a Euro draft. Ruesch International once was the best place to buy foreign currency cash and drafts and to cash foreign currency checks. Unfortunately, they no longer do business with the general public. So we bought our draft from our local bank which works though the Dutch bank, ABN AMRO. $US 40 fee for the draft plus a retail exchange rate that was about five percent higher than the wholesale rate.

At the time, I checked the Euro rates at our local AAA office and they were about three percent higher than wholesale. If you'd feel a bit more comfortable leaving with a small amount of Euros in your pocket or want to be covered in case the airport ATMs aren't working (it can happen), spend the extra three dollars to buy 100 euro from your local AAA office.

We try to pay by credit card wherever possible. VISA and MasterCard only--we've never found a place in UK/Europe that accepted Discover. Except for hotels and restaurants, few accept AmEx.

Until this year, VISA and MasterCard credit transactions were processed through their networks at the same terms as ATM withdrawals. Same conversion at favorable wholesale rates; same one-percent translation fee levied by the network. However, some credit card issuing banks such as Wells-Fargo added another 1-3 percent foreign transaction fee (AmSouth, our bank, like many other smaller ones, did not).

This year, things changed. Several credit card issuers now bundle the one-percent PLUS/Cirrus fee into what they call a "convenience charge" that totals 3-4 percent and may or may not be disclosed in the amount on your credit card statement. AmSouth sold its credit card business to MBNA and in the disclosure statement we found that MBNA will charge us a three percent translation fee in addition to the one percent PLUS fee for a total of four percent! Currently, of the major issuers, only Capital One levies only the basic one-percent PLUS fee and no extra fees of their own.

Many smaller banks and credit unions that issue credit cards still do not levy charges of their own besides the one- percent PLUS/Cirrus fee. Ask!!

If you can't find a credit card that does not load on these extra fees, just draw from the ATM and pay cash! Frequently, we're told, hotels and merchants will reduce their prices when you pay in cash because they in turn avoid having to pay their bank's 3-5 percent charge processing fee.

Another "gotcha" is the increasing incidence of hotels and merchants that "do you a favor" by converting and processing your charge in $US instead of the local currency. Happened to us in 2004 at a London apartment (we had to catch our plane and didn't have time to argue about it) and last year by Hertz car rental (the final billing was processed after we had left Bologna). Each time, the exchange rate used was about eight percent higher than what it would have been if processed as a normal local currency charge. We protested through our bank but Hertz dug in its heels.

>From what we read on the travel chatnets, this practice is increasingly widespread. We investigated and learned that you have the right to refuse and demand that your charge be processed in local currency. The practical problem is that the hotelkeeper/merchant may suddenly forget how to speak English or otherwise stonewall you. One chatter suggested that you write on the charge slip and copy that you were denied the right to be billed in local currency which may give you some leverage during a later protest of the charge.

Always something!

Finally, be sure to tell your bank and credit card companies when and where you will be traveling. One time in CA, I was using a credit card for a purchase and it was rejected. We called the credit card company and learned that they all now have computer programs that detect and report any unusual charging patterns. Seems that after months of charging things in TN, all of a sudden someone was using Jerry Yares's credit card in CA. After I convinced them that I was me, the charge went through. I learned my lesson.

Jerry in E TN USA